My (Amanda's) best summer job ever was at a nursing home...
Back in college, I spent nearly three months as an activities assistant at a nonprofit nursing and assisted-living home. Between games of bingo, art classes, and musical guests, I developed friendships with many of the residents.
But as much as I loved it, there were still days that I'd sit in my car and cry after my shift. Working that closely with people who were sick, losing their memories, and dying takes a tough emotional toll. And I wasn't the only one. Many people in jobs like these burn out.
There's even a name for it: caregiver stress.
And you don't need to work in a retirement community to experience it. As more members of the Greatest Generation (generally those born between 1901 and 1928) age, it often falls to their children to provide care. We're seeing that trend with Baby Boomers now, too.
But you'll find few headlines talking about the hardships of caregiving. A sense of guilt tends to prevent any complaints. Most caregivers bear the burden alone. I've seen it in my own family and I'm sure you have as well.
Caregiver stress causes a myriad of problems like fatigue, depression, muscle cramps, upset stomach, and even sleep problems.
It hurts your immune system, too... For example, it makes colds and the flu harder to fight. That's why older generations, who already have weaker immune systems, are at higher risk of serious complications when under caregiver stress.
I'm not only speaking from experience... An important paper in theJournal of the American Medical Association proved this point. Researchers found that for those between the ages of 66 and 96, caregivers of spouses were twice as likely to die within four years as those who weren't caregivers.
The researchers said that spouses who act as primary caregivers don't take enough time to rest or take care of themselves when they fall ill. That's true for most caregivers I know, whether spouses or children. Worse, caregivers are more likely to skip their own doctor's appointments, lose sleep, and even forget to eat meals.
So today I want to share a few things I've learned from working with my family members and at the retirement home...
1) Prepare. If you're preparing to become someone's caregiver, realize there are more concerns than simply cost.
For instance, if you're alone with your elderly father, will you be able to help him get up and out of bed safely? What will you do if he falls? This is especially true for spouses taking care of one another – it's not uncommon for older caregivers to suffer injuries while taking care of their spouse.
Make sure you have a plan in place. Start with resources like this onefrom the AARP. Talk with other family members and organize things like who will drive your loved one to doctor's appointments, who will assist with bathing and feeding, and so on.
2) Get organized. Once your loved one is home, you'll want to keep up a steady routine. This will help you feel less overwhelmed and stressed, and it helps your parent or spouse relax. My mom does this on a weekly basis by setting aside specific days for grocery shopping, filling prescriptions, and social activities with my grandmother.
Another task to try: Keep a current list of medications and your family history. I can tell you from experience, checklists like these make doctor's appointments much easier.
3) Find support. The act of sharing your stress with others going through the same thing is invaluable. As part of the nursing-home staff, I had my boss and coworkers to help me cope with stressful situations. And full-time care is even more stressful, which is why support groups are important.
Support groups help you have contact with others... Often, caregivers will keep to themselves or refuse to leave the house. Socialization is vital to preserving your mental health. Plus, leaning on others in the same situation allows for you to swap tips and coping skills, too.
Hospitals and community centers often have lists of local groups, and you can also find help through your state's department of aging. Eldercare.gov offers a searchable database based on your zip code. Try it here.
4) Take time away. Along with support groups, make sure you take time for yourself. Exercise, hobbies, and even just taking time to leave and be alone somewhere will all help with the stress of caregiving.
One of our favorite stress busters: Combine music with meditation. As we wrote in our January issue, both release dopamine, which helps the nerves in our brains fire better. It also helps with stress reduction.
5) Ask for help. Services like nursing care and physical therapy might qualify for Medicare coverage. Often when you leave the hospital, a social worker will help you set this up. You can also find a database of these home-health agencies right here.
But what about other chores? Things like preparing meals, doing laundry, and driving to various appointments and errands all take time. That's where in-home care comes in...
Companies offering these services provide assistance with everything from housekeeping to driving to assisting with bathing and dressing. I learned about them from my aunt, who founded her own company a few years back. (I guess senior care runs in the family!) Many companies offer a wide range of services like these, so make a list of what you most need help with before you ask for pricing.
Medicare won't cover these things, but this kind of help goes a long way for managing your stress. You can find companies like my aunt's through The Senior's Choice network, here.
Taking care of someone you love is deeply personal, but please don't do it alone. I've seen people burn out... families divided... and relationships permanently damaged.
As a caregiver, take time to care for yourself. I hope you will use the resources here to get help when you need it. And if you have any other tips for caregivers, please feel free to share them with us at [email protected].
Here's to a fresh start,
Amanda Cuocci & Laura Bente
April 15, 2018